When Evangelicals Were Cool: He Doesn’t Know the Half of It, Musically at Least

It was a pleasant surprise to see Philip Jenkins article When Evangelicals Were Cool about what many of us refer to as the “Jesus Music Era”.  Given the protracted trashing that Evangelicals have gotten since (done, in part, because they’re perceived as a threat) it’s nice to see someone bring up an era–the late 1960’s and 1970’s–when, in the midst of all the social upheaval, people frequently got saved and Evangelical Christianity flourished.

Jenkins is correct in putting his finger on the music revolution–and Christianity’s adaptation to it–as a critical moment in introducing a new generation to Jesus Christ.  He keys his emphasis on one group–the Byrds–and one genre of music–“country rock”–as the key to the breakout that took place.

But the Jesus Music Era was far more complex, and reflected a situation which was not as one-dimensional as either Jenkins (probably for brevity) paint it, or as it later became.  A few things that Jenkins and other researchers would do well to dig into would be the following:

  • Roman Catholic and Episcopal Folk.  Although Jenkins emphasises the Evangelicals, the Roman Catholics and Episcopalians were very much using the liturgical changes taking place in their own churches to pioneer some interesting types of music, ranging from the college folk of God Unlimited and Who Shall Spread the Good News to the community music of Emmanuel (before it was flattened by covenant community authoritarianism) to classically influenced works like Sons of the Morning and more pop style groups like the Kairosingers.
  • Coffee-house Folk.  The coffee-house was that hippie-Christian institution par excellence; many lives were changed there.  Few institutions met the culture as successfully.  The Calvary Chapel groups such as Love Song, The Way and the Maranatha series of albums and artists propagated that very successfully, but works such as He Loves You and Me take the art form higher in many ways.
  • Progressive Rock.  Although “prog” isn’t as well represented as one would like, especially on the other side of the Atlantic with British groups such as Reflection.  But these shores saw some too, such as Outpouring.
  • Hard Christian Rock.  The bane of many a preacher in those days and now, groups such as Petra and Cookin’ Mama showed that Christians could rock on as well as their secular counterparts.

With this illustrious legacy, the obvious dumb question is “What Happened”?  There’s a short and a long-term answer to this.

The vinyl/cassette/8-track legacy of the era has been around ever since (and yes, I can remember when it was new)!  But in the later years of the last decade sites such as the Ancient Star-Song have digitised the music for a new generation (and for the one that heard it in the first place).  Unfortunately the copyright issue, especially this year with the Megaupload fiasco, has largely derailed the effort, although (especially with the indie albums) the artists who discovered their work was “out there” again were generally pleased that anyone still cared and that their work was still enjoyed and ministered to people.  Some have even been inspired to put it back into distribution.

The longer term problem started towards the end of the 1970’s, and it revolves around the simple fact that Christian music shifted from being a ministry to being a business.  Rachel Held Evans’ piece on Christian bookstores documents a process of the homogenisation and “sanitisation” effect of Christian retail, and that was part of the problem.  The music labels did their part too.  Christian music may have increased its commercial viability, but it sacrificed its diversity of style and ministry impact in the process.

And Jenkins’ focus on Christian country rock underscores another transition that has come back to bite Evangelical Christianity: the “Dixiefication” of Evangelical Christianity, the Christian music industry and the church itself.  The Baby Boomer generation is essentially bifurcated by those who were deeply influenced by the 1960’s and those who were not.  Much of the “Jesus Music Era” attempted to reach both sides of the bifurcation.  But the money and numbers tended to crowd out alternate expressions of the faith, even when those expressions reached “beyond the gates” more effectively.  The upshot of this process is an Evangelicalism which is too narrowly focused in the US even when elsewhere–and within non-white groups here–it is burgeoning.

But Jenkins has opened up a long-needed conversation on what he rightly describes as the “Fourth Awakening” in this country, one that stalled its secularisation for a generation and perhaps more.  It’s time also to learn some lessons about how to break out of a “cultural ghetto”, lessons that are sorely needed now and for the foreseeable future.

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